The step-by-step approach aims putting the one-time ECMC champion among the best in the long run.
In January of 2018, the National Committee of Wheelchair Basketball (CNBCR), headed by Augusto Pinto, gathered all eligible players in order to launch the first Portuguese Under 22 National Team. 18 months later, Portugal made its official debut in the European Para Youth Games, held in Pajulahti, Finland, recording four losses and one win. From coach Ricardo Vieira’s perspective, to set a pathway towards future success there are just “too many stages to mention”, the main point being “the lack of fundamentals, since without these it will be very difficult for them to become elite players”. Young players have very few opportunities to play in the league, most teams practice two times a week and the coaches’ technical knowledge and understanding of the game falls short. “It’s one of the things that worries me the most”, Vieira affirms, as he offers an immediate explanation for the circumstances. “Many of the clubs are associated to institutions, whose focus is the defence of disabled people’s rights and have always faced sports only as a tool of integration”, an organizational structure that hardly promotes or requires highly trained staff.
Against a background like this, a paradigm shift becomes urgent and starting a national programme could be key. “Our biggest goal is to create a High-Performance Centre where our best athletes have access to top facilities, but this entails the need of changing to a semi-professional framework”, declares Augusto Pinto. The president of CNBCR targets bringing more young players into the sport and the emergence of new teams as priorities, considering the existence of just 12 players under the age of 22 among a not so encouraging total of 180, a number Ricardo Vieira doesn’t accept lightly. “There are one million disabled people in Portugal, and I can’t believe nothing is done by the government to give an impulse to adapted sports considering how it benefits self-esteem and physical recovery amongst other aspects of life. An increase of investment could represent an important boost, however, “teams must also look actively for patrons and sponsors”, claims the coach of APD Braga.
Until then, it all comes down to the athletes’ self-motivation, a message Vieira has been emphasising during the U22 national team camps. “We have to get inside their heads and make them see that a big part of the work must be done outside team practice. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is the only way”, he points out. The national committee laid the groundwork to allow better training conditions both to the Under 22 and Senior national teams in the last couple of years, with Augusto Pinto estimating the first Portuguese participation in the under 22 European championships. Before that, the goal is “to add more camps to our calendar and gain international experience by attending or organizing tournaments with foreign teams or countries”.
The single conquers of Portuguese Wheelchair Basketball took place in Dublin, Ireland, in 2007, when the squad was crowned ECMC champions, after defeating Lithuania in the final, a historical mark followed by another meaningful accomplishment a year after. In 2008 they reached 8th place in Division B, avoiding relegation. However, in 2010, Portugal was relegated back down to Division C and a pattern of inconsistency repeated between 2015 and 2016. However, the circumstances of the national team can change if everyone rises to the occasion and maximises the opportunities for the new generation.
Ricardo Vieira, 44, is the head coach of the Portuguese Under 22 National Team since 2019 and of APD Braga since 2000, the current four-time Portuguese champions. With this northern team, he won 16 trophies, including 5 national league titles. As a coach, Vieira also held the position of assistant coach of the Senior national team between 2016 and 2019, achieving a third place in the ECMC last year. Plus, this Braga native, has achieved degrees in Madrid, Manchester, Adana and Milan. He performs the functions of official trainer for the Portuguese Basketball Federation – Federação Portuguesa de Basquetebol (FPB)-, helping aspiring Wheelchair Basketball coaches. In addition to this impressive curriculum, he has 12 years of experience as an international IWBF referee in Europe from 2002 to 2014.
Augusto Pinto, former Athletics athlete in CDUL – Centro Desportivo Universitário de Lisboa – and Sporting CP, became a table official in the 90’s of the Portuguese Basketball Federation (FPB). He first saw Wheelchair Basketball in 2005, as a member of the Lisbon Refereeing Committee, responsible for the link with the extinct National Association of Sports for People with Motor Disabilities (ANDDEMOT). On this governing body, he assumed several offices, including head of the WB Refereeing Committee, board member and manager of the National Team. On September of 2017, Pinto was appointed President of the Wheelchair Basketball National Committee (CNBCR), an entity created within the Portuguese Basketball Federation. He’s been in charge of Wheelchair Basketball since 2016.
Text: Pedro Bartolo